I am a Black girl and I am serving in the US Peace Corps as a Youth Development Volunteer in Peru. I have always identified strongly with my blackness as my experiences with race have shaped my life greatly. As an undergrad, I chose to pursue a degree in African American Studies at Temple University because how can one understand America without understanding the people who helped build it? And although I feel I received a great public school education and history was always my favorite subject, I remember counting only about 20-30 pages about African Americans and their contributions to this country in my American history text book and I felt I needed more.
It is safe to say that I am acutely aware of the way race shapes the world. Sure, you can say race has no scientific basis and that it’s a social construct but that doesn’t make it any less real. As a result, I am hyper aware of my blackness because I have no choice but to be. Whether we like to admit it or not, we live in a highly racialized society and the problems that arise from this are deeply entangled in our past and present – and I am positive they’ll find their way into our future too.
This hyper awareness has not changed since joining the Peace Corps because it is a primarily white space (in terms of volunteers) and often times, I can’t help but feel my otherness. So in honor of Black History Month, I decided I wanted to focus my posts on my experiences as a Black (or African American – I use them interchangeably) volunteer. The point of these posts is not to speak for all Black volunteers, because we all have different experiences and for me to try and channel Al Sharpton and speak for an entire race would be unfair. I am simply one Black volunteer trying to tell her own story in hopes that it will help current and prospective volunteers with a little more insight – tis all.
Anyway, sorry for the lengthy intro but here are some very, very basics for colored folks who have considered Peace Corps:
1. There Ain’t A Lot of Us
We’re certainly not rolling squad deep here, my friends. Out of about 38 in my training
group, Peru 26, there are only 5 African American volunteers including myself. And that is a healthy amount compared to training groups passed. I can’t be sure how many of us there are currently serving in Peru, however I do know this – Out of more or less
200 volunteers in this country, I only know of about 11 other African American volunteers and most of them are women. And because your experiences in country may vary because of your skin color, it’s only natural to want to talk to someone who is going through what you’re going through too. Sometimes these people are not your white counterparts. I found it comforting at times to seek out and talk to other Black volunteers about what I was feeling whether that be about an experience I had with HCNs (Host Country Nationals in PC lingo) or other with other volunteers. Now I’m definitely not saying to purposely self segregate – I’m simply acknowledging the value of finding and giving support to other African American Volunteers. And speaking of other volunteers…
2. Fellow Volunteers Can Offend Too
Yes, at least in my experience, volunteers are good people with good intentions. But does that mean they are free from ignorance or prejudices? No – none of us are. Does this mean that you won’t hear or be told ignorant things that make you cringe? No, you probably will hear them.
For example, on days where you’re learning about diversity (especially when that diversity means racial diversity) you might hear things like, “More diversity talk? This doesn’t apply to me.” Boy, that’s one that really gets me for 2 reasons. The first being this: It applies to everyone – black, white, purple, pink it doesn’t matter. Just because you have had the privilege of ignoring how race affects this world doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to you.
What are you going to do if a HCN calls your Black site mate or volunteer friend an “ugly African” in your presence? Are you going to appropriately correct them and talk about why that is offensive or are you going to sit there and say, “Oh. Doesn’t apply to me.” As
volunteers we all have a role to play and that includes teaching HCNs about our own country. If you don’t try to understand how race affects your volunteer counterparts, how can you face these situations and still take your de facto role as an ambassador of the U.S. seriously? The second reason it grinds my gears is because you usually won’t hear, “This doesn’t apply to me,” from those same non-racial minority heterosexual volunteers when the diversity training revolves around LGBTQ issues. In my experience, most people have an easier time committing to be an ally for the LGBTQ community of volunteers (which is awesome too) but are quick to dismiss and be uninterested when we start talking about how race can affect a volunteer’s service.
You might hear these kind of comments and much more (I know I have!) but I believe that one of the great things about PCVs is that in a way, they all came here to learn something. They may not have expected to learn about race and diversity in their own country but if they truly came with a willingness to understand other people, why should that not apply to their fellow Americans and volunteers? So if you feel comfortable enough, I think turning an ignorant comment into a learning opportunity is a great way to approach the situation.
3. Peace Corps Seems to Be Trying
It can be frustrating at times to go through training and feel like a lot of the information given about the volunteer experience is based off the white volunteer experience. In a way, I understand this because like I said, the vast majority of volunteers are white and they can’t tailor every little detail. But from what I can tell, Peace Corps HQ and Peace Corps Peru seem to be trying. I remember last year for Black History Month, PC HQ had a Twitter chat about serving as an African American Volunteer which, as an applicant, I really thought was pretty great. I also know that this year, they will be hosting a web chat with a panel of Black RPCVs to share their experiences. Seriously, that’s the bees knees right there! These are exactly the type of things I actively sought out as an applicant. Although, I do think that these types of panels and Twitter chats should continue to be held outside of Black History Month as well (what if I’m a African American applicant applying in April for an October departure date – I miss that window in February) I definitely think that this is an excellent step in the right direction.
As for Peace Corps Peru, we have what is called DTF (hehe, haha I know) and it stands for Diversity Task Force. It is a group of volunteers with a staff liaison who work to support and address issues regarding the diversity of volunteers. And although DTF certainly does not only focus on racial diversity, they still are a great resource. During training, they were able to put together a panel where trainees could anonymously ask questions. We also had the opportunity to talk to a current PC staff member & RPCV about how her being a Black woman affected her service in Paraguay. And lastly, our training staff brought in two African American embassy workers (one man, one woman) to talk about their experiences being Black in Peru.
There have been so many times where I felt like my experience a Black person has been ignored, forgotten, or breezed over – like in my high school American history text book. And even though I’m sure I’ll continue to experience that over and over again, it is a very comforting feeling to know that at least PC HQ and PC Peru recognize that there is a need and value in having discussions and trainings about how race can shape a volunteer experience. And in a country where we love sweeping our racially charged dirt under the rug and acting like we didn’t put it there, this recognition is welcomed and refreshing.
PHEW. Now, that I’ve wiped the sweat off my brow and stepped down from the soap box, below I’ve listed links to things that might be helpful for prospective African American volunteers – I hope this helps someone.
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